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Published: September 22nd 2018
My day started at 4am not much point in going back to sleep when I needed to be at the airport in an hour, so I packed a few more things, took out the garbage and headed down to the cab rank. Twenty-five minutes later I had cleared immigration got my US$ and settled in till departure.
The flight departing before mine was going to Bagram in Afghanistan and was full of American servicemen, I was sitting there amongst Africans wondering why they were going to Iraq when it dawned on me they were catching the flight after mine. A little after 7pm I headed through the gate and out to the bus, I positioned myself right near the front door as I had seat 2C and figured I could be seated before the rabble realised the bus had stopped, but only about 20 people boarded, and we were off.
The flight attendants were surprised too, even after a second bus arrived with 10 more aboard, I love an empty flight. Flydubai are always late taking off and this morning was no exception, I slept through the take-off and only woke when they cracked my
knee with the food trolley, remarkably the airline is always on time or as with today's flight early. I looked out the window as we approached the city and it looks exactly like South Australia in summer, am I pining for home?
I was the first one off the aircraft and moving to immigration at high speed, I entered the hall to find a huge number of people lined up, there were only two aircraft on the tarmac, so I have no idea where they all came from. I got my free one-month “visa” and then headed for the exit, here I waited just a few minutes for a bus to take me to another building about a kilometre away, where you then walk out to the people waiting for you, never seen this before.
My guide/driver was waiting for me and we were soon on our way, the capital (population 1.5 million) of this autonomous republic which includes three northern provinces, is clean and pleasant despite the dry 41 degree day, the heat is far more bearable than the humidity of Dubai.
The first stop was at the functioning 4th
century Assyrian Mat Mattia monastery, at least some of it was original most had added in 2006, from the balcony my guide pointed out the battlefield of the recent war between the Kurdish peshmerga and ISIS. Next, we went to a place called Lalish which is the 4500 year old epicentre of the Yazidi faith, ancient and based around Adam, Noah and some other truly ancient profits, a very strange religion. The Yazidi refuse to intermix with other religions, they do not marry outside their faith and are known to abandon mixed children, their temples look very similar to Hindu shrines.
Next, we visited the Khanis archaeological site, it has some very old Assyrian reliefs carved into the cliffs which look similar to those I saw in Iran many years ago. On to the Christian town if Alqosh and the Raban Hormizd Monastery, this place was cool, no living monks here now though. This place began like most monasteries first they lived in caves and then eventually burrowed into the mountainside then built a monastery over the top, seriously cool especially the phone lit climb into the bowels of the mountain, the climb up the mountain demonstrated
my lack of fitness though. Did I mention that there were no tourists at any of these places...heaven.
He final destinations of the day were a lake created by the damming of the Tigris river, nothing special really, then on to Dohut the provincial capital (1.2 million) which is rather pleasant and my hotel. Falafels and chick pea soup are awesome here and cost about a dollar when washed down with sweet tea. I am tired so having an early night, aircon, western toilet and a fridge with lots of cold water, can't ask for more.
After a breakfast of salad, yoghurt, eggs and flat bread we left Dohut and headed through a landscape that reminded me of Greece before arriving at our first location of the day the mountain top eerie of former president Sadam Hussein. It was built in 1984 and was occasionally visited by him and his cohort, the mountain is seeded with landmines so leaving the access road is not a good idea. In 1991 when the Americans were smashing the Iraqi army the Kurds revolted and the palace was looted. The Turkish PKK then occupied the building for a
time which brought the attention of the Turkish air force and a missile strike. The PKK now hide in caves in a valley nearby and the Kurdish Peshmerga occupy the palace, they are hospitable and showed us around the house, served tea and were just very nice people and the views of the region were amazing. A couple of eagles popped over to check us out.
On the way down the mountain Karwan showed me one of the mad man's follies, the idiot spent millions tunnelling through the mountain as he planned to build a cable car to another of his 60 palaces on another hilltop 10 kilometres across the valley, it never happened. We drove across the valley to that other palace, this one was also pretty much a ruin, it seems some US soldiers caught a rumour dug up the floor and hauled off a fortune in gold bars. A short distance away was a cave with a restaurant inside so kitsch but Arab tourist just lap it up.
The final destination for the day was Almedi a 4000 year old city perched on the flat top of a mountain some 17
kilometres from the Turkish border. My driver took me to an excellent look out on private property where I could see the city from above. Being the reputed home of the Magi or three wise men from biblical lore and having passed through the hands of numerous great empires I was expecting a living archaeological museum. Unfortunately, when we entered the town itself only the original gate which is used as a urinal and a damaged rock carving remain, the town has been disappointingly modernised and the city's Jewish and Assyrian populations far diminished. As we originally approached the city we passed dozens of cars and buses and I assumed all those tourists were heading to the mountain top town, but they weren't, there is a really kitsch waterfall with goats on it on the other side of the river and it seems the Arabs travel from all over the country to see it - I saw it and it was ugly, just like all the others I have seen in just about every town I have been through in this country.
As we made our way back to the Kurdish capital at Erbil I listened to
football on the internet and mused on how bad the drivers are in this country.
I began the day with a soup and salad breakfast before meeting my driver in the lobby, I paid the hotel bill with one dollar notes which caused a furore which I didn't have the patience for. Kurdistan has a lot of migrant workers and they are no brighter than the labourers in Dubai. First stop was a fortress on a hill which was cool but inaccessible, it seems young people were going there to drink and shag, so they padlocked the door. Next were some torn up Iraqi tanks circa Desert Storm when the Kurds revolted against Sadam and his cohort.
We continued north climbing up onto a plateau that looked down on a beautiful canyon and the famous Hamilton Road built by a Kiwi in 1928. From there we went on to look at a couple of waterfalls which generally I wouldn't bother with, but water makes these people a little crazy and waterfalls make them a lot crazier, surrounding them with hotels, restaurants, shops and kitsch everywhere you looked.
It took about two
hours to get back to Erbil and I had just enough time to visit the citadel which until 2006 had thousands living inside, bizarre and the main mosque all of which were worth the effort. I brought some sweets home with me they are dates and walnuts wrapped in some milky stuff and are very tasty. Karwan dropped me at the Airport and gave me a banknote with Sadam's face on it which was very nice of him.
Airport security here is insane I was frisked and had my bags x-rayed, five bloody times before finally getting on the plane, again only a small number of people which means I was out of the airport and on my way home very quickly.
Final thoughts - Northern Iraq is a modern place, most historical buildings have been torn down and replaced with boring repetitive architecture, most people have cars and drive them very very badly, the donkey carts and shepherds I expected to see were few and far between. I was most disappointed by both the graffiti and the rubbish people seem to throw everywhere and felt sorry for the gangs of poorly paid Nepalis
who toil in the sun picking it all up. I enjoyed the food and found the people friendly and good hearted.
I let my guard down in Kurdistan the 80 cent falafels are playing havoc with my guts and my whole-body aches like a bitch - an unpleasant night ahead it seems.
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